“We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.”
Have you ever gone so far out of your comfort zone that you even surprised yourself? I mean, I’ve never been skydiving nor would I ever, but I have put myself in some rather unique situations.
This past Friday was my birthday, so instead of the usual dinner at Jack Astor’s, being booth hogs for hours,
we decided I decided we should try something new. Cue, dining in the dark.
Naturally, I was met with many blank stares and disbelief when I told the others of my plan.
“Sylvia, really? You’re going to miss your mouth when you try to take a sip of your Pinot!”
“Dinner in the dark? I would never do that, you’re a brave soul.”
“What’s wrong with Jack Astor’s?”
It’s because I love food experiences, duh.
I must admit, this is not for the faint of heart. It took some serious persuading to finally get all my friends on board with my big birthday plan. After traveling around downtown, getting an impromptu tattoo and almost running out of gas on our way to the restaurant, we finally made it to O. Noir!
Dining at O. Noir was an experience unlike any other. It really challenges you as a person to go outside of your comfort zone and trust the magic of it all.
We entered the restaurant and were immediately greeted by the cool embrace of dim lights. It was whimsical yet mysterious. We walked down a long corridor to meet our hostess. She presented us with menus and guided us over to a waiting area. This was so our eyes could adjust to the contrast between the bright outdoors and the pitch-black restaurant.
My friends and I opted to choose surprise appetizers (meat, seafood or vegetarian) and then pick our entrées. Life’s too short not to be surprised every once in awhile! Once we had ordered, Gavin, our waiter instructed us to form a line and hold onto each other.
We walked through one door, remaining linked together and slightly apprehensive. We then walked through another door and were immediately swallowed by COMPLETE DARKNESS.
Once we got past the initial shock, it sounded just like any other restaurant. People were chatting while cutlery clinked against plates and gentle music played in the background. Gavin led us to our table instructing us of its configuration to help us navigate better. Once we were all seated, he brought us our drinks and appetizers. That was interesting! One by one, Gavin handed us our plates and beverages by meeting us at our left shoulder, where we would then receive our goodies.
Round One: Appetizers
Take every moment and savour it!
What an interesting challenge it was to try and identify what it is that you are eating! My vegetarian option was peculiar. There was both a warm and cold component. It tasted familiar, like something I always eat. I immediately guessed that I was eating some sort of spinach salad. Then my fork found its way to something warm, something that was charred or grilled. Yum! Smokey, yet earthy with a rubbery texture. I struggled to figure out what it was that I was eating.
Despite not knowing, I kept eating! We should all try new foods like that! After a few more savoury bites, I finally cracked the code: Portobello mushrooms. Victory at last!
It was quite comical listening to all my friends trying to distinguish what it was that they were eating. Between mushrooms, pork and calamari, most of us were able to make some kind of an educated guess!
Round Two: Entrées
My friends chose steak, chicken and pasta dishes that I was told were fantastic. I had Shrimp Risotto with Mushroom and Garlic and it was amazing… so amazing that I had to create a copycat recipe (see the end of this post)! When you’re in a lit restaurant, beautiful presentation can often heighten your perception of how well the meal tastes. In the pitch-black darkness of O.Noir, the food must taste good. The flavour profile is everything. Guests rely on their sense of taste to judge the quality of the meal. I was so impressed by the complexity of flavours and varying textures. Each bite was a delicious surprise!
Upon finishing our meals, we were escorted out of the restaurants and into the waiting room once more. Wowza! Was it bright or what?! It took some time before our eyes could readjust! Of course, once we could see normally, we stumbled on a few realizations…
It’s probably best to wear dark clothing. Listen, there is almost a 100% chance that you will make a mess. You’ve relied on your sense of sight your whole life, it’s only natural. So even if your wine glass lines up perfectly with your mouth, chances are that once you exit the restaurant, you will find leftover mashed potato on your shoulder. Unless you really are a risk taker… then DEFINITELY wear all white.
We were also amazed at how much time had gone by. It seemed like we had only been in there for half-an-hour and were quite shocked that it had actually been closer to two hours!
It’s funny how sometimes you can’t say certain things under the light of day. I swear, I thought I knew my friends… but man, dining in the dark changes a person. I learned that some of my friends were more adaptable to change, while others were not. Those who were most nervous about dinner were also the ones who enjoyed it the most!
It’s funny how many of us turned into instant food critics as well 😀 In living through this experience, we challenged ourselves to think about things differently, one of them being how the food was actually affecting us. We talked about texture, flavour and the eating as a total experience. We sounded like a group of Gordon Ramsey’s giving our input on the overall quality of the dish, something that most of my friends don’t really think about!
Can you imagine living everyday of your life in darkness? I could not, but it’s a reality for those who are visually impaired. It was difficult just to sit down at our table and eat, I can’t imagine what it would be like to adapt in a world that isn’t always so accommodating for those who are different.
O.Noir is fantastic in this respect because it helps others to see things from a new angle. They also primarily employ those who are blind to work as servers, providing excellent opportunities for those who might otherwise find it difficult to work.
Darkness + Food = The Ultimate Sensory Experience
You don’t have to worry about the looks you’re going to get from someone if you can’t even see them! I found myself sharing some of my deepest insecurities and looking for advice where I might not have usually put myself in such a vulnerable state.
Likewise, it seemed easier for my friends to just openly discuss whatever was on their mind. Relationship woes, deepest fears, dark pasts… nothing was off limits! Do you know how freeing it is to just talk? I never realized just how guarded I was. Dining in the dark helped me to realize that I should try to be more authentic and open with my feelings because chances are that your friends will not judge you. They are your friends for a reason, they will support you.
By putting yourself in such an unprotected situation, completely in the dark without any knowledge of where anything is or who is seated next to you, you are forced to face your fears and really trust your gut.
That being said, if I learned anything it would be to take advantage of this time to let your ears do all the work. Normally, our eyes are fixed on what the table next door ordered, fixated on our phone screens and generally too interested in other things to actually listen to what our friends have to say.
The act of sharing food ties us together. When we share a meal with someone we feel safe, a safety that can be echoed when we find ourselves in the dark. Don’t you find it so much easier to be yourself when no one can see you? Dining is just like that. The people you break bread with get to see another side of you; they learn to understand who you are as you share such an intimate experience together.
Darkness provides a sense of ease despite the compromising circumstances of not being able to see. The temporary blindness acts as a blessing in disguise. At first, it is challenging yet as time goes on, it helps in the bonding process. When we gather around the table and begin talking to one another, many times we learn that we are sitting amongst complete strangers. Not often do we have the time to just stop and sit and talk. If dining helps us connect with others, then adding the element of darkness simply furthers this effect. We can say just about anything without the anxiety of receiving odd looks or stares. Isn’t that just liberating?
O.Noir Copycat Garlic Mushroom Risotto With Roasted Shrimp
* Makes 4 servings *
- 5 cups chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 5 cloves of garlic, smashed
- 1 cup mushrooms, chopped
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
- Salt, oregano, red pepper flakes
- 1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 lemon, squeezed
- Salt and black pepper
For the risotto:
- In a skillet, melt butter into olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, mushrooms and garlic and sauté until tender. Add rice and sauté for 2 minutes.
- Add the wine and let it evaporate for another 2 minutes.
- Slowly add 1 cup of broth and stir until the rice has absorbed it. Keep adding the broth slowly to the rice, stirring frequently.
- Cook until the rice is al dente (tender but not mushy).
- Add cheese and spices after removing from heat.
For the shrimp:
- Place the shrimp on a sheet pan and dust with spices, lemon and oil.
- As the risotto finishes cooking roast shrimp in the oven for 6 minutes at 400° F.
- Serve shrimp on top of a generous spoonful of risotto and enjoy!